The First Universal Goldberg?

National
Review Online humorist Jonah Goldberg has mysteriously
emerged as an Establishment “Conservative”
commissar, mainly concerned with purging the pesky
(and distinctly unimpressed)

paleolibertarians). Here Paul Gottfried ponders the broader significance
of Goldbergism for immigration reform and the National
Question.
 

More by Paul Gottfried:

The
Enemy Of Multiculturalism Is Not Necessarily
Our Friend…

America`s
National Question

Problem:
Decaying Protestantism…
]

Paul
Gottfried And America`s Decaying Protestants
 

In
a Commentary polemic
in October 1986, Brigitte Berger, responding to
conservative wars of the time, distinguished “our
conservatives” from another, less congenial kind.
The enemies she depicted were alleged neomedievalists,
who resisted the free market, constitutional
government and, middle-class civilization. Smitten by
a mythical organic past, these paleoconservatives were
trying to separate American conservatism from its New
World and modernist foundations. The neoconservatives,
who were standing up for postmedieval political
institutions, were fighting these rabid reactionaries
in a war that had not yet been decided.

This
line of argument, or something closely resembling it,
has come up each time the “respectable”
conservatives look rightward, toward those they hope
to remove from the political discussion. 
In March at a CPAC conference and in his online
commentary
National Review-
editor Jonah Goldberg,
who is too young and obviously too ignorant to know
the origin of this dispute, pointed to the French
counterrevolutionary Joseph
de Maistre
(1754-1821) as the theorist whom
American conservatives should want to fight the
hardest.

In
his polished, aphoristic dialogues, Evening
Conversations in St. Petersburg
,
Maistre had noticed that it might be more useful to
try to understand people as Englishmen, Frenchmen,
Germans, or members of other national or ethnic groups
than simply as human beings. Such a conceptual
perspective, according to Goldberg, goes against
conservatism, which is about the spread of “human
rights.” Since Maistre did not believe in such
rights, or in the universalist assumptions that
they presuppose, he therefore made war against
something Goldberg calls “conservatism.”

What
Goldberg is really pushing is a form of leftist
imperialism reaching back to Robespierre and Jacobin
France. Goldberg has dusted off the platform of the
French revolutionary Left and misnamed it
conservatism, while taking a once renowned conservative,
Maistre, and assigning him to a neocon
version of eternal perdition. It might be properly
asked why anyone would mistake the bearers of this
view for certified conservatives.

Although
Jewish social democratic historians George Mosse,
Isaiah Berlin, and J. Salwyn Shapiro have depicted
Maistre, in an exercise in loose associations, as a
proto-fascist, they never suggest, to my knowledge,
that Maistre was anti-conservative. To the contrary,
they insist that by attacking the radical legacy of
the French Revolution, this Franco-Italian aristocrat
had helped sustain the reactionary Right. He had done
this by criticizing “human rights” as an
anthropological fiction, a position that Edmund Burke,
an English Old Whig reformer, had also famously taken.
In 1790 in the Reflections
on the Revolution in France
, Burke had judged
the appeal by the French Revolution to “the rights
of man” to be an “armed doctrine.” French
proponents of these rights were creating a perpetual
pretext to meddle beyond their own borders in the
affairs of other societies. And in Burke`s view,
this was what made them particularly pernicious
iconoclasts.

Beyond
Goldberg`s problem in taxonomizing dead white
conservatives is the intention of his efforts to
redraw lines of division on the Right. He may have
been moving out of his depth by bringing up Maistre.
But, like Brigitte Berger in 1986 and like other
neocons since, he wishes us to know that his conservative movement, which is the visible big-money one, will
not put up with non-universalists. Although Goldberg
is not describing any past conservatism, he is
defending the ideas associated with what used to be
the democratic Left. That Left has now shifted without
changing its character to become the respectable
Buckley-Podhoretz Right.

In
the process, and with the connivance of the media,
whatever lies to the right of what was once the
anti-Communist Left or Left-Center has fallen on
parlous times. I devoted a large chunk of The
Conservative
Movement
to this
messy process. Here I want to highlight two
observations.

One,
the most troublesome enemy the present
non-conservative leadership of the misnamed
conservatives face is not a neomedieval but a
thoroughly modern enemy. It is a bourgeois liberal
Right that goes back to the nineteenth century, and it
is well represented in Europe by the Lega Nord, the
Austrian Freedom Party and other vehicles of
accountable, decentralized governance associated with
traditional social morality. The opposition to
immigration that such groups express points back to a
desire to have culturally compatible political
communities. But there is nothing these anti-immigrationists
represent that the American founders or most
eighteenth or nineteenth century liberals would not
have accepted. One does have to dig up Joseph de
Maistre to find a political defense of cultural
specificity. Hume, Montesquieu, Burke, John Jay and
even the radical democrat Rousseau made the same
defense equally well.

My
second observation is taken from an essay
by Murray Rothbard originally published in 1991 and
now available in The
Irrepressible
Rothbard
.
Rothbard looks at the “mistake” of the late Frank
Meyer who thought it was possible to create a
conservative movement broad enough to embrace both
sincere anti-Communists and opponents of the modern
managerial state. What came to take the place of
Meyer`s fusionist movement, intended to embrace both
extremely limited government and militant
anti-Communism, was Cold War liberalism. And,
according to Rothbard, Meyer bore some responsibility
for this outcome. Since an aggressively anti-Communist
foreign policy was what he and his collaborators
emphasized and what Cold War liberals more or less
favored, the National
Review
circle, partly under Meyer`s influence,
gravitated toward what eventually became
neoconservatism. Another circumstance contributed to
this result. Much of the pre-War Right was uneasy with
large military budgets and more eager to oppose the
American welfare state than to battle the Soviets and
their proxies. Therefore the fusionist compromise was
only a way station in the Right`s irreversible
takeover by the anti-Communist Left-Center.

Dramatizing
this takeover, according to Rothbard (although he
credited me with the original insight), was the
elevation of Sidney Hook into a cultic
figure on the reconstructed Right. By the 1980s Hook
had gone forward in the conservative press from being
a well-meaning atheist and moderate socialist, who was
good on the Communists and academic freedom, to an
object of hushed reverence. None of this reflected
changes in his worldview, since Hook had abandoned
Marxist-Leninism for Deweyite Progressivism decades
earlier.

But
the change in Hook`s image in the conservative press
was related to what happened to American conservatism.
Anti-Communism went from being a feature of National Review-conservatism to a justification for including
anti-Communist allies on the Left and finally, to
awarding paradigmatic conservative status to those who
were intrinsically non-conservative. From there it was
only one tiny step to Goldberg`s commentary that
redefines leftists as the true conservatives and the
classical conservatives as God knows what.

Paul
Gottfried
  is Professor of Humanities at
Elizabethtown College, PA. He is the author of After
Liberalism
and
Carl
Schmitt: Politics and Theory
.

June 26, 2001